Before we get started: not one word of the following review of Savage, a mean action thriller written by Pat Mills, is a complaint. Well, apart from noting the difficulty in comprehending the climax of Book Four when it was first serialized, anyway. The second volume of Savage is completely and utterly terrific. Compared to the awesomeness of the first volume, there's no drop in quality at all, but it is indisputably a very, very different set of stories than what we'd seen before. I hope that it's possible to note how things changed, and speculate on how things might have continued, without damning even a single page of what came next with faint praise. While a large part of me still wonders what a robot- and teleportation-free Savage might have been like, I am completely and totally thrilled with what we got instead.
This is an interesting case where I found elements of the original serialization in 2000 AD bewildering and weird, but everything clicked when I read it in collected form. Each Savage story, typically sixty pages and labeled a "book," first appears across ten or so weeks in 2000 AD, usually once a year. The first three Savage books, illustrated by Charlie Adlard, were collected in the volume Taking Liberties. Patrick Goddard became the artist with Book Four, which is when the series started feeling quite different.
Proving that I just plain don't pay attention like I should, I missed the fact that the first three books take place over a comparatively short period: just about four months. The time was 2004, five years after Britain had been invaded by the eastern European Volgan Empire. After about a year fighting a brutal guerrilla war in the company of some of the entrenched resistance, Bill Savage, a former truck driver, escaped to Canada while escorting an heir to the throne to safety. There, he worked behind the scenes, providing intelligence and directing resistance operations before returning in '04 to turn things upside down. It's all amazing, and Book Two's climax and coda rank among the most startling, unpredictable, and thrill-packed things that Mills has ever written.
Book Three ended with the Volgans in retreat and beginning their withdrawals. What Mills did next was actually pretty confusing, but also amazingly clever. When that first collected volume ended with the British beginning to take back their nation, that appeared to be the end of the story. Book Four - which is where this second collected volume starts - sees the Volgans in charge again. It's set in 2007, after the Volgans reoccupied Britain, ostensibly because their withdrawal had left a massive economic and defense vacuum. And Book Five is set two years later, by which time the Americans are finally ready to enter the conflict, because they've found a way to do so without risking public morale over the loss of life: they've designed robots called ABC Warriors to do the fighting that soldiers once did.
I love this to pieces. It's long been 2000 AD lore that the long-running series The ABC Warriors was borne of the very same conflict with the Volgans that began in the comic's very first issue, when Volgan paratroopers dropped down onto central London in the far-flung future of 1999. A flashback episode that saw print in 1987 explained the development of the war droids, and Book Five of this story ends with the first deployment of the Mark Ones on the beaches of England, coming ashore triumphantly like the Allies at Normandy.
Of course, readers also know that the Mark Ones will be a failure and that the escalating robot war will span decades and devastate Europe. There's still a lot to do behind the scenes, and a lot of intelligence work that requires snap decisions and out-thinking the enemy. Savage, under the cover of a taciturn bar owner named William Carter, is quietly manipulating events from his "manor" while popping out to lead commando raids, even after American E-bombs have knocked out the last several decades of technology - an attempt to deaden the Volgan troops' ability to effectively communicate that also inconveniences the civilian population of London.
Honestly, I might not like the Goddard-drawn Savage quite as much as I like the Adlard-drawn stories, but good heaven, I like it a lot. It's a thrilling series, full of memorable characters and episodes, and great moments. There's a terrific part in Book Five when Savage, having made it to Allied command in Ireland with critical information, is reluctant to share it in front of a civilian: a still-human Howard Quartz. It's not just the tremendous fun of dotting decades-old points of continuity; it's a deeply satisfying and slow-burning scene in its own right. The eighth book of Savage is running in 2000 AD even as we speak; the whole thing is absolutely recommended.